Saturday, April 25, 2015

Damn The Debt: Lessons and Tactics from Debt Resistance Movements

This was originally published on

An active debt resistance movement is seizing hold across the United States. Currently, the debt strikers number over 100 students who are refusing to pay back the student loans they borrowed to go to the now-defunct for-profit Corinthian Colleges. The move has attracted media attention and could potentially provide a platform for a larger student debt movement to expand from here. However, students of history take note: this isn't the first time there have been debt resistance movements in the United States. And the lessons we learn from prior movements can just as easily be applied to today’s situation. 
Shays’ Rebellion
While Shays’ Rebellion is something that many people don’t have much knowledge of besides it being a rebellion of farmers against the government, the issue of debt was very much centered around it.
The rebellion came about due to post-Revolutionary War economics. After the Revolutionary War ended, merchants sought to expand their profits via trading with other areas, namely the Baltic states, the Mediterranean, and France. The Baltic was unable as while New England “generally sent surplus grains, fish, and lumber abroad,"[1] these commodities were already produced in the Baltic in large numbers and the commodity that New England could offer, beef, usually spoiled along its journey. The Mediterranean was blocked off due to Barbary pirates attacking merchant ships and France was a no-go as they weren’t able to get enough credit to be able to transport their goods.
The situation was made worse when American merchants attempted to trade with the British controlled West Indies and the British “excluded New England importers from the lucrative British West Indies market and left the Americans with few means to repay English merchants for the commodities they had purchased."[2] The West Indies situation is extremely important as immediately following the Revolutionary War, “British tradesmen continued the prewar practice of offering large cargoes to American merchants on credit.” US merchants took out large loans from the British with the assumption that that they would be able to take advantage of the West Indies market and make enough money to pay off their debts that way. When this proved impossible, the economic situation became critical as the merchants were at major risk of defaulting on their loans which could have severe economic repercussions not just with regards to trade with the British, but also domestically.
In order to continue with their business, the merchants pressed shopkeepers to which they had loaned to for funds and in turn the shopkeepers pressed the farmers to pay back their loans. Most farmers were used to paying back their debts with crops rather than cash and thus didn't have much cash on hand. This quickly landed many farmers in court where their land was at stake or in debtors' prisons. While the shopkeepers were desperate, such actions only heightened in tensions between the urban middle-class merchants and the poor farmers.
In response to this, New England farmers began to organize and resist their debt burdens. The first order of business was to push for reform, via town meetings and county conventions, in favor of state-issued paper money and tender laws, rather than the bullion coins used in that day. This was rejected wholesale by the business class and since many New England legislators were located in coastal cities and needed the support of businesses, they too, rejected the call for reform in 1785 and 1786.
While the meetings were going on, the farmers also wrote petitions to their respective state governments. For example, in Massachusetts, between 1784 and 1787, yeomen in seventy- three rural Massachusetts towns sent petitions to the General Court of Boston and in New Hampshire, from January 1784 to late September 1786, “yeomen in forty-one towns forwarded complaints to the state assembly."[3]
The tactics of the farmers began to take a turn in late 1786 as the protests were doing virtually nothing to get the reforms the farmers needed. During that time protesters armed themselves “and proposed 'moderating government' by planned attacks upon the court system.” However, this rebellion didn't last long as in Massachusetts, the governor called Congress to raise up forces and even though they were only able to raise one thousand troops, the rebellion was quickly put down.
Almost 150 years later, another debt resistance movement would take place, also centering on farmers and the oppression they dealt with. However, the tactics would change with the times as unions made by and for the oppressed advocated for them.
The Resistance to Sharecropping
Sharecropping is something that, along with convict leasing, is rarely mentioned in many history classes. The general myth is that after the Civil War ended, slavery ended with the passing of the thirteenth amendment. The reality is quite different as the oppression of African-Americans didn't end, but rather took the form of convict leasing and also sharecropping. Sharecropping was essentially debt slavery and, as M. Langley Biegert notes in the Journal of Social History, many blacks thought that sharecropping was “often little better than the old system of slavery” and some even went so far as to “[argue] that it was even more dehumanizing than slavery."[6] In order to combat this system, sharecroppers- both black and white alike- began to organize against their oppression.
In July 1934 in Tyronza, Arkansas, eighteen sharecroppers and tenant farmers “met in a local schoolhouse to discuss the idea of forming a union for non-landowning farm workers,"[7] as people were being evicted from farms due to the New Deal incentives to cut back on farm production. In response to this, the workers decided to stand up for themselves on a collective basis, across racial boundaries, and formed the Southern Tenant Farmers Union.
It should be noted that something such as this was not an easy decision to make as the risk of retaliation was quite real as can be seen in the case of former slave Bryant Singfield. Singfield “tried to organize farm workers in Phillips County who were trying to negotiate new labor contracts."[8] He had been kicked off of the plantation he was had worked on as a slave due to his outspokenness, after which he began to organize the former slaves who had decided to stay on the plantation as contract workers. He was quite successful and some people felt emboldened enough to even go beyond the demand for collective bargaining. This greatly angered the planter class and so they targeted Singfield, who, along with other protesters, were rounded up by white planters and never heard from again. However, the members of the Union made their decision and quickly began agitating for workers. One of their notable early actions was the Missouri Sharecropper Demonstration in 1939, where the Union advocated on behalf of sharecroppers.
Many sharecroppers and tenant farmers who worked in Missouri worked in the Bootheel region which was prime real estate for cotton farming. However, in 1939, “the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers announced it would deliberately breach the levee that protected the richest cotton land in the Missouri Bootheel in order to relieve pressure on the levees guarding the city of Cairo, Illinois."[9] This aided in the acceleration of getting rid of sharecroppers and tenants and switching instead to day laborers and increased mechanization. While the New Deal did set up the Agricultural Adjustment Administration, which was to give checks to sharecroppers and tenant farmers, the checks were given to the planters who would keep money and evict the workers. This was made all the easier by the fact that the final arbitrator of any disputes between planters and workers was settled by the county committees which consistently sided with the planters.
In response to this, members of the Union engaged in wildcat cotton-picking strikes in the autumn of 1938. This in and of itself didn't do much, however, it was a serious form of debt resistance as if the sharecroppers didn't work, they were unable to pay on the debts that they owed. By refusing to work, the sharecroppers were effectively engaging in an act of debt resistance.
The Union became more involved upon receiving calls of aid from members. To this end, the Union ultimately helped to organize a roadside demonstration where they demanded a living situation akin to those living on land from the Farm Security Administration which “was compelling because it preserved the social worlds of small farmers on independent homesteads, an aim that continued to resonate with landless people despite the dramatic economic changes that made such an outcome less and less possible."[10] Overall, many of the protesters just wanted their own farms. This would allow for them to work independently rather than having to endure the suffering of sharecropping.
Lessons Learned
So, why does any of that matter? What are the lessons that we can take from these movements and apply to today?
With regards to Shays' rebellion, we can apply two things: (1) have a clear, coherent message and stick to it and (2) escalate the situation over time. With regards to a clear message, the best thing that student debt activists can do it to all get on the exact same page so that there is one message that is repeated again and again. This will only help as it serves as a guiding light, a goal that is to be achieved.
In escalating the situation, there is obviously not be a call for violence as that is completely unneeded for this movement and so when it comes to turning up the heat, it just means that the activists should, over time, up the ante, doing things such as blocking roads and disrupting traffic as can be seen in the Black Lives Matter movement. It should also be noted that the farmers engaged in a diversity of tactics, doing some simultaneously, and that that should also be on the table. One should not stop protesting or slow down protesting when negotiations begin, but rather work to increase the volume of the collective voice.
The sharecropping protest should keep us reminded that while having leaders can be a good thing, they can also be targeted by the establishment whether in terms of disappearance as is what happened to Singfield, or co-optation. This can also been seen as an argument for horizontal organizing, especially when one takes into account the wildcat strike that took place. A second lesson we can learn is that activists should have each others backs and that when one group is crying out for help, we respond quickly and swiftly. Finally, individual activists should also be able to keep their autonomy and engage in actions that they see fit and can work within the context of their situation.
These lessons may be able to help the student debt movement as it would allow for people and groups to have their own autonomy to develop new protest tactics all while staying on message and to, no matter what, speak with one voice. Horizontal organizing, as seems is quickly becoming the norm for modern protests, also aids in the movement as there are no leaders to attempt to corrupt and it makes sowing dissent and discord all the more difficult. If we are to win this fight, we will have to use every tool available to us, so let's get started!


1: David Szatmary, Shays' Rebellion: The Making of an Agrarian Insurrection (Amherst, Massachusetts: University of Massachusetts Press, 1984) pg 20

2: Szatmary, pg 19

3: Szatmary, pg 38

4: Devon Douglas-Bowers, Slavery By A Different Name: The Convict Lease System, The Hampton Institute, (October 30, 2013)

5: Devon Douglas-Bowers, Debt Slavery: The Forgotten History of Sharecropping, The Hampton Institute, (November 7, 2013)

6: M. Langley Biegert, “Legacy of Resistance: Uncovering the History of Collective Action by Black Agricultural Workers in Central East Arkansas from the 1860s to the 1930s,” Journal of Social History 32:1 (1998), pgs 76-77

7: Biegert, pg 73

8: Biegert, pg 79

9: Jarod Roll, "Out Yonder on the Road": Working Class Self-Representation and the 1939 Roadside Demonstration in Southeast Missouri, Southern Spaces, (March 16, 2010)

Friday, April 3, 2015

Sexuality and Kink: Talking BDSM

Given that the movie 50 Shades of Grey has come out recently, a large amount of media attention has been devoted to not only the movie, but the discussion of Bondage, Dominance, Submission, and Masochism or BDSM. While many condemn 50 Shades of Grey as a film that promotes abuse, rarely, if ever has the media discussed the movie and BDSM more generally with people who are in the BDSM community. 

Below is a transcript of an interview I did with three people who identify with and are a part of the BDSM community. In it, we discuss sexuality, how real-life BDSM differs from reality, and the impact 50 Shades of Grey is having on people's of BDSM. They have chosen to remain anonymous and thus will be referred to solely by their initials. 
1. How would you define your sexuality? How did you come to this realization?

CG: If we're talking about who I'm attracted to, I'd be best defined as a demisexual. While I can tell you whether or not someone is in my opinion sexy, I don't feel any actual urge to engage in any form of sexual activity with them unless I also feel a deep romantic attachment. The people I've felt this way with have all been women. I think that I'd be equally attracted to a male given the right set of circumstances, though I can't say I know what they are. If we're talking about what end of the S&M [Sadism & Masochism] spectrum I'd fall upon, that was something I grappled with. I'm definitely a sadistic dominant. I enjoy being the controlling one in most sexual situations, and I draw a great deal of erotic satisfaction from the pain or humiliation of a willing partner.

It was mostly a question when I was younger and I thought for sure that there couldn't be anyone else who was turned on by the same things I was. As a boy near the onset of puberty, I'd fantasize about the idea of being in pain at the hands of a dominant who controlled me, but I later realized I probably fell on the opposite end of the spectrum in practice once I started to have relationships with other BDSM enthusiasts as a teenager. Still, I think that sexuality and its many facets are quite fluid once you remove the cultural inhibitions and I wouldn't be surprised if I were to change my mind one day.

SW: I think, in all honesty, a person's sexuality is something they spend their whole life discovering. There are always people that vehemently declare that they are as straight as a ruler, but really, there will almost always be an exception. And if not, a straight person can still, usually, appreciate the attractiveness, or lack thereof, of someone of the same gender. For me, love is love. I do not fall in love with someone based on their gender or sexual preference. I fall in love with people based on who they are as a person, on the inside, and physical attraction doesn't hurt.

CR: I'd define my sexuality as pansexual, but my romantic orientation as biromantic. Sexual attraction for me isn't about gender. While the person's gender is important and should be respected, it has no baring on my ability to feel attracted. However, in a romantic sense I do have preferences in gender.

I came this this conclusion when I was very young(at least on my pansexuality), because despite crushes on boys my first kiss was with a girl. I loved girls(and later gender non-conforming people) just as much as boys.
2. How did you find yourself becoming interested in/attracted to BDSM?

CG: When I was about 12 years old, I figured out you could use Google to find pictures of naked
women. I'd print them out and pass them around to my friends who didn't have computers. It was mostly out of curiosity and a desire to discuss sexual things with friends who were at a similar stage of development. 'Sex education' always had too much of a dressed up politically correct agenda for my tastes. It was at this point that I first realized there were many other people out there who thought and felt the same way I did about the activities commonly known as BDSM. I found images of men and women bound in different positions, videos of people dominating each other, and everything that came with it. I had always been interested in those sorts of activities, but I could never put a label to it simply because I didn't know of one.

SW: I cannot pinpoint a certain pivotal moment; I think I was always just curious deep down. I have always had interests that deviate from what many people call normal. Speaking of which, the word normal has always translated to boring, in my mind. I pride myself in being simultaneously unique and invisible. I do not like being the center of attention but I like standing out, if that makes any sense at all. It is fascinating to discover the limits of one's body.

CR: To be honest? I'm a multiple abuse victim and rape victim. Certain aspects of my PTSD make it very hard to process, own and deal with that trauma. It is my experience that certain aspects of BDSM can be very helpful in dealing with psychosexual issues. That said, I think it is equally important to criticize, examine and understand why your kinks are your kinks. Sex doesn't exist in a vacuum.
3. What are some aspects of BDSM that not many people know about?

CG: I think the most common misconception people have about BDSM is that it's like rape, that it's
all about the gratification of the sadist who is an evil person randomly forcing the masochist to endure things for their pleasure. In reality, consent is absolutely everything. Perhaps most emblematic of this is the popular trend of a 'safe word.' Some people use an actual word, others use a system of color coding similar to a traffic light. Whatever your choice, if a safe word is used it means "I am uncomfortable, stop." To continue at that point is the ultimate breach of trust in BDSM, and it can signify the end of a relationship. Since the general conception is that the masochist is the one being used by the dominant, it's supremely ironic that such a powerful tool rests mainly in the hands of the submissive. In fact, I think it's fair to argue that the one with the most control in an BDSM scenario is the submissive. But this control is important, because it makes sure that mutual satisfaction is being achieved.

Some people enjoy inflicting pain in an erotic setting, and some enjoy receiving it. Another thing I'd imagine most people don't know is that healthy BDSM relationships start the same way any other sexual relationship does. Whereas one couple may discuss the fact that they want to save penetrative intercourse for marriage, you might put more emphasis on turn-offs, limits, and a safe word. While people who would fall under the label of BDSM enthusiast may like similar things, it's still a label and not everyone is the same. If one of you doesn't like to perform or receive a certain sex act, or if there's a certain point you don't wish to pass, that's something that should be communicated.

SW: BDSM is not just about ruthlessly flogging people. BDSM is about mutual respect and listening, listening to what your partner likes or when they have had enough. Safe words are key and must be heard and honored. Aftercare is also very important and includes discussion of the experience as well as tending to any more serious injuries sustained.

CR: That is kind of a loaded question. Most people have a very limited idea of what goes into a kink based partnership. Much of BDSM is not inherently sexual in nature. Much of it is, but sometimes you'll have submissives who honestly just want to clean your house. Being submissive fulfills a need for many that isn't always sexual, that they cannot find otherwise.
4. Do you think it is up to the BDSM community to make a better image for itself or should society stop being so rigid about the expression of one's sexuality?

CG: That's problematic. On the one hand, I think BDSM participants should be sensitive to non-participants in the same way a person with fiery sexuality should be to an asexual person. Many are simply not into it, and there's nothing wrong with that. It's a matter of respect out of deference. On the other hand, our society is painfully puritanical about even 'vanilla' sex acts and that has to stop. In contrast, the BDSM community is not dissimilar to the larger gay rights movement in that it's big on acceptance, respect, and individual choice. Sure, there are a few yahoos here and there who muddy it up for the rest, but for the most part the mindset is in a good place.

I like to keep my sex life private (which would be the case even if my preferences were mainstream), but I know there are many others who do not feel the same way and that should be their right. It has to be a give and take. People who don't want anything to do with it should have the right not to be audience to it, and people who do shouldn't be shamed or forced into stifling themselves. I do err more on the side of society needing to abandon a bit of its rigidity, though. The people actively opposing different expressions of human sexuality are the ones with the problem, not the other way around.

SW: I think, at the end of the day, people are going to think what they are going to think. If people want to be close-minded and form baseless, negative opinions, then let them miss out on the fun. You cannot please everyone, nor should you attempt to.

CR: This is a grey issue. Kinksters have a tendency to act like nothing in the scene should be questioned. Vanilla people tend to have a very heteronormative view on what the scene is and can be. The kink community does need to conduct itself better, but society as a whole needs to work through its issues with sex negativity.
5. How is/how can the potential for abuse in BDSM be combated?

CG: I think it is sadists practicing with consenting partners who get the brunt of the bad reputation associated with BDSM. Masochism isn't viewed in the same controversial light. As far as combating the assumption of abuse, it's a matter of drawing a distinction between what is abuse and what is consensual. In outdated versions of the DSM, essentially the bible of diagnostics in the field of psychology and psychiatric medicine, sadism and masochism were both classified in a manner not dissimilar to a psychological disorder. Nowadays, they're listed under paraphilia. There are very clear guidelines as to what is defined as disordered sadism, and I happen to agree with them. A person is considered 'disordered' if they experience significant emotional distress to the point of impaired every day function because of their urges. More important is whether or not they practice their urges with an unwilling person. Short of that it can't be abuse because it's consensual, which means that there's no victim.

Then there's the people who try to hide abuse behind the guise of love. Forgive me if I speak harshly here, but this is a very touchy subject for me. It makes my blood boil that there are people in this world who are so callous as to maliciously abuse another human being and not even own up to it. Worse still, they take the label of what is essentially an oppressed minority and they pervert it for their own temporary protection. And it is temporary. Abusers may not always be punished in the form of legal retribution, but they always get found out and it has an impact on their life. Unfortunately, by that point they've already become a statistic. The vast majority of sex offenders could be classified as disordered sadists. In that respect, I don't know if there's much that can be done. People like to lump things together. It makes it easier for them to process the big world outside their heads with too many things for them to conceptualize at a high level. The only real hope we have is to distinguish between the disordered and those who are just harmlessly kinky. As I keep saying, consent and being informed are everything.

SW: The potential for abuse in BDSM can be combated with aftercare, safe words, compassion, and tenderness. BDSM is not about aggression but about the line between pleasure and pain being crossed and blurred.

CR: Easy. If someone says they have been raped, abused or otherwise harmed by a person, they should not be welcome in the public scene. Vetting should be standard, there should be at least one reference in your profile, or someone willing to vouch for your newness to the scene etc. It really shouldn't be seen as difficult as it is.
6. If able to, explain how 50 Shades of Grey is problematic and does a disservice to the BDSM community.

CG: I've personally never read the book, as that would require me giving patronage to the person who wrote it. I have read about a half dozen synopses of it. From what I've seen, it's problematic mainly for the dominant party in BDSM. This is true in three ways. Firstly, it depicts the dominant in an excessively dysfunctional light. Christian Grey goes beyond the bedroom with his 'desires' and invades the personal life of Anastasia in numerous ways such as borderline stalking, and legal coercion. Looming over your lover isn't acceptable in any type of relationship, and a BDSM relationship is no different. As far as legal coercion goes, unless you're Sheldon Cooper you don't need a relationship agreement drafted in the form of a legal document to have a relationship you can feel safe in. This plays into the second problem, his blatant control issues. It's true that BDSM does have some elements involving taking control of or giving control to another party. However, in most cases this takes place behind closed doors.

Christian Grey tries to rig his relationship with Anastasia in such a way that he would have full control over everything that happens regarding their intimacy outside of the bedroom as well. Add this to the whole 'young, aggressive billionaire' thing that he has going on and you're left to wonder what we're not being told about his personality. From another synopsis I've read, I know that we later find out that he has been in therapy because of his urges for over a decade. As I've already mentioned, this is a symptom of disordered sexual sadism. Finally, he seems to be practicing with a non-consenting partner. While Anastasia is somewhat receptive to his advances, from what I've read she never explicitly states that she's okay with what is about to be done to her. Grey seems to be throwing things at a wall and hoping something will stick. This goes against the core of consent and respect within the BDSM community.

CR: Mmmm, see I don't really care as much about the kink community being misrepresented here. Even rudimentary research would show you the glaringly obvious there. I am far more put off by the treatment of Ana. I am concerned about how the popularity of this book will further normalize abusive relationships, possibly leading to even more abuse in the scene.